John Freeborn: 1919-2010

In a 2004 interview, an RAF hero recalled encounters with friends and enemies during the Battle of Britain.

John Freeborn, second from right, relaxes with fellow Royal Air Force pilots from 74 Squadron at their base in Hornchurch, Essex, in August 1940. Also pictured: Roger Boulding (with dog) and Henryk Szczesny. (Courtesy John Freeborn)

In the summer and fall of 1940, John Freeborn flew more operational hours during the Battle of Britain than any other Royal Air Force pilot. A year earlier, however, he was involved in a deadly incident that nearly ended his career.

On September 6, 1939, Freeborn and other Supermarine Spitfire pilots from 74 Squadron, led by an aggressive South African pilot named Adolf “Sailor” Malan, scrambled from their base in southeast England to intercept what were reported to be approaching aircraft. Not far away, a formation of Hawker Hurricanes from the 56 Squadron in North Weald was also ordered into the air to confront the “intruders.” In fact, no German airplanes were over Britain that day (World War II had started just three days before). Freeborn’s squadron mistook the Hurricanes for the enemy. In what became known as the “Battle of Barking Creek,” Freeborn and fellow pilot Paddy Byrne shot down two Hurricanes, with Freeborn’s “kill” resulting in Britain’s first death of a pilot in that war (the other pilot survived). Freeborn and Byrne were eventually exonerated at their court-martial.

Freeborn remained with 74 Squadron until November 1941, shooting down 13 German airplanes with another 12 probable kills. Awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, he was later posted to 57 Operational Training Unit, then spent a year in the United States as a test pilot before returning to Europe. He commanded 118 Squadron and finished the war as wing commander with 286 Wing in Italy. Freeborn, who passed away on August 28 at the age of 90, spoke to author Gavin Mortimer in 2004.

How much did the incident at Barking Creek affect your confidence?

Not much. I was very sorry about it, but it was Sailor Malan’s fault. He gave us the order to attack and we attacked. I think I would have shot down more [Hurricanes] if it weren’t for Hawkins [another 74 Squadron pilot]. He got in the way and I was shouting at him to get out of the bloody way, to either shoot or let me shoot. But then he said, “It’s one of ours.” When the adrenaline is running, you don’t realize these things at the time.

When we landed, George Sampson [the squadron commander] was waiting and Byrne and I were placed under close arrest. As for Malan, no one could find him. He’d gone off somewhere and dropped us right in the shit. But we were acquitted because we had two of the greatest barristers ever and they took Malan to pieces, said he was a downright liar.

What was your impression of the Spitfire?

74 Squadron took delivery of the Spitfire in February 1939 and it was a wonderful machine. It was the first time I’d flown a monoplane, because prior to the Spitfire we’d flown Gloster Gauntlets [biplanes], so I was a little nervous when I sat in the Spitfire. I was also only 19 years old, don’t forget! The first time I took off, it went so bloody fast I went straight between two hangars at 180 mph. That was an Mk 1, obviously, and its main defect was its guns. It had eight Browning .303 machine guns, so we needed to get as close as possible [to the enemy] because there were times when I was behind a [Messerschmitt] 109 knocking hell out of it with my guns, and all that happened were little bits [of the airplane] flew off. The Spitfire Mk 2A was a lovely machine—my favorite—and the Spitfire Mk V was the worst airplane I’ve ever flown. (Editor’s Note: Freeborn considered the Mk V to be underpowered and heavier to handle than the more nimble 2A.)

How did you cope with the death of some of your fellow pilots?

You had to become callous and indifferent to death. Of course, you were very sorry, particularly if they were close to you. I lost one of my good friends, Peter Chesters, when he was killed attempting a victory roll as he approached the airfield [in April 1941]. A daft way to die.

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